The passing of New Year saw the start of the food industry’s final countdown to the biggest food labelling rule changes seen in years.
It’s been widely reported that, on December 13 2014, Regulation (EU) 1169/2011, which is known as the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (FIC) or FIR – as it will be known when incorporated into UK law – will be enforced.
The legislative changes involved will significantly modify food labels beyond specifying minimum text font sizes, etc, in a bid to make ingredient information more accessible to consumers.
Mandatory information to be made available to consumers includes the name of the food, list of ingredients and – although some rules are still to be agreed – the country of origin or place of provenance. Products mandated by specific EU legislation – such as beef, olive oil and honey – must display their country of origin. Changes to front-of-pack nutritional information and frozen food labelling will also come into force. Don't miss our free, one-hour webinar on the FIR to be staged at 11am GMT on Thursday February 20.
New labelling rules may come as a shock to some, with “one of the issues being around the sheer volume of changes,” says Simon Flanagan, senior food safety and allergens consultant at Reading Scientific Services.
“I think everybody will have to change their labels to make them compliant,” comments Flanagan. He notes that food businesses will have to carry out major packaging redesigns where ingredients and nutritional information are concerned.
Allergen box (Return to top)
The box listing allergens, for instance, although familiar to consumers in the UK, should be removed from products. “Allergens will need to be highlighted [in the main ingredients list] and they need to stand out,” Flanagan adds.
Some in the sector believe allergen box rules follow trends from other parts of Europe, where they are not used. While Alison Sharper, food law adviser at Campden BRI, says it is more than conforming with a European trend.
“The legislation says allergens have to be highlighted in the list. I think it is because there have been many product recalls through allergens being missed,” Sharper says.
She says food businesses have been known to miss allergens from advice boxes, which subsequently can only be discovered in the main ingredients list. This highlights a general “overreliance” on the allergen box, she adds.
Yet, Sharper says the allergen box may not need to be scrapped altogether and has the potential to point consumers to relevant information. “If it is still used, it must refer consumers to the ingredients list and could say ‘see allergens in bold’."
Stuart Shotton, consultancy services director at the technical support company FoodChain Europe, predicts the removal of the allergens box will cause a “surge” in consumer queries.
Shotton says there may be a need for businesses to have more customer service employees to deal with confused customers, looking for the allergen information. “You may find that, even though the allergens are highlighted, a lot of customers call and ask where the information is,” he says.
Flanagan, however, raises an issue potentially greater than that of how allergens are listed on pre-packaged foods. He cites a “lack of guidance” on allergen labelling in the foodservice sector. He adds that new information from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) states allergen information can be given to consumers verbally.
Along with this, he claims there are many foodservice businesses unaware of upcoming changes to food labelling and asks: “From the allergic consumer's perspective, it can be a life or death situation. How do they know that the information [they are given verbally] is correct?”
Accuracy and adequacy (Return to top)
An FSA spokeswoman, meanwhile, explains that enforcement actions for foodservice businesses will be based on the “accuracy” and “adequacy” of a business's processes. “So in practice, not every member of staff needs to know what allergenic ingredient is used in every item on sale, but they do need to know how to access that information and convey that to the customer,” she says.
But allergen labelling is only the start of FIR changes and by December 13, 2016, nutrition information will be mandatory for pre-packed foods. However, those already supplying nutritional information on-pack will have to ensure they comply with layout changes by the end of 2014.
The information will need to be shown on a per 100g basis for energy, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt – and must be displayed in that order beneath the ingredients.
Such labelling will be burdensome for some businesses, says food analyst at Public Analyst Scientific Services, Liz Moran. “Not only in the sense that they will have to display the information, but because companies will need to have their products analysed.”
Moran says this can be a costly process, pointing out that smaller food businesses may not have the financial resources.
Meanwhile, Shotton criticises the UK government’s failure to deliver its notes on how FIR changes will be enforced, which “is a worry”.
“We don’t know how the rules are going to be enforced,” he says. “We are using our own interpretation of the EU rules and if the guidance contradicts this, then what does that mean?”
He says the guidance notes on enforcement were supposed to be released in summer last year, “but we’ve heard nothing”.
That is true, says deputy director of food policy at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Andrea Martinez-Inchausti. “Guidance should have been issued in spring/summer last year. But our understanding is that it is likely to be [issued] around March/April this year, at the same time as the national legislation.”
Discussions taking place (Return to top)
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) spokesman, meanwhile, says discussions about FIR enforcement have been taking place with the FSA, local authority officers and industry representatives.
“We produced draft guidance in November last year and have asked all concerned for their comments on our draft,” he adds. “We want our guidance to be helpful to enforcement officers and relevant to the modern day food manufacturing industry.”
Inchausti, however, feels food businesses are going in the right direction with the information available to them. “We have seen a copy of the guidelines and we are working with DEFRA to make it as robust as possible,” she adds.
Yet, Shotton fears a lack of finalised guidance will cause trouble and says: “Until they [DEFRA] say what the enforcement is, it is difficult to guess what [FIR] enforcement will look like. I think we will see an influx of improvement notices on labels from Trading Standards officers.”
But measures are being taken to limit a potential flood of improvement notices on labels when December 13 hits, says David Pickering, joint lead officer for food nutrition at the Trading Standards Institute (TSI).
Trading Standards services are giving advice to firms on reaching compliance. It is important to try and stem notices being given like “confetti” as soon as the calender reaches December 13, adds Pickering.
To do this, he says the TSI is also thinking about how to train officers in policing FIR labelling in a “sensible” and “objective” way. He also points out that firms can “sell-through” stock with non-compliant FIR labels.
Concern for SMEs (Return to top)
Yet, most industry observers say larger food manufacturers are likely to have labelling changes in place, pointing out that consumers are already seeing new labels alongside old labels on products in supermarkets.
“My primary concern is more towards the SME [small- and medium-sized enterprise] types of businesses at the moment, because we are noticing they are finding it hard to put things into place,” Shotton says.
Jon Poole, chief executive of the Institute of Food Science and technology, echoes Shotton’s sentiment and says: “I do feel for the small and micro businesses [that] do not necessarily have the resource or expertise to interpret and implement the changes.” Shotton adds that – if it has not already been done – businesses need to do some serious planning on how they are going to implement the changes and what resources they will need to do this.
Flanagan, meanwhile, urges businesses to look at the logistics too, pointing out that the simple step of getting items printed could become an issue. “There is a finite amount of printers and if you haven’t booked yours in advance, there could be problems,” he says.
“But ultimately, it’s the responsibilty of whoever’s name and address is on the pack,” Shotton warns.
Book your place at the free, one-hour FIR webinar, due to take place at 11am GMT on Thursday, February 20, here.